Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Man United against Benfica - We Mustn`t Lose!

Manchester United host Benfica in Champions League Group F tonight still needing a point to be assured of their place in the last 16.

Consecutive defeats against FC Copenhagen and Celtic dented the Red Devils’ European ambitions, leaving them to sweat right down to the last group game. Adding to the nervousness will be the fact that Benfica provide the opposition, following the part the Portuguese outfit played in United’s traumas in last season’s competition.

On that occasion defeat in Lisbon condemned Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to an embarrassing early exit, with Benfica joining the tournament’s surprise package Villarreal in the knock-out stages. Yet this year’s United vintage seems of an altogether higher quality than that of a year ago, with Ferguson already on the cusp of masterminding a genuine challenge in the Premiership.

Darren Fletcher scored the winner in their latest domestic success, a 2-1 triumph over Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. Yet the Scottish international could miss out against the Lisbon outfit here, with Michael Carrick expected to be restored to the starting line-up. The former Tottenham man is set to once again partner Paul Scholes in central midfield, as Ferguson reverts to his strongest 11 for what is by far the biggest game of the season so far.

The visitors need a win to progress, but coach Fernando Santos also has a full-strength squad to choose from for the task. Strikers Fabrizio Miccoli and Nuno Gomes are available, while defender Luisao and midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis have both overcome minor knocks and will be fit to start at the Theatre of Dreams.

Last season’s game in Lisbon was the only time United have been defeated by Benfica competitively, with the two teams having met on six previous occasions. Most famously, they met at Wembley in the final of the 1968 European Cup competition, with the English side earning a 4-1 win after extra-time. In so doing, they became the first English club to win Europe’s top prize, and added a second European title in 1999 when they edged Bayern Munich after a dramatic climax in Barcelona.

Despite their poor record against United Benfica are not without their own European pedigree. Winners of the competition in 1961 and 1962, they also reached the final in 1963, 1965, 1988 and 1990. After seeing off United last season they went on to beat Liverpool in the last 16, only to succumb to eventual champions Barcelona in the quarter finals.

Both sides come into this one on the back of some decent domestic form. Benfica are lying fourth in the Portuguese league following a fine 2-0 win at the home of fierce city rivals Sporting Lisbon, their first away win of the season but their third league win in succession. United’s three point haul against Boro opened up a six-point lead at the top of the Premiership, with main challengers Chelsea not in action at the weekend.

The most recent meeting between United and Benfica came on Matchday Two of this season‘s competition, when a Louis Saha goal earned United what now looks a vital win in Portugal. A repeat of that is not unlikely given that United now have the home advantage. With Benfica needing all three points to progress they will have to open up at some stage, giving United a little more room to breathe than is often available at European level. With this in mind, the home side should be able to pick off their opponents at will, and it would be a major surprise if the ghosts of Champions League past were to strike United down.

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